End of an Era: Goodbye, Southwood Glen

When we first moved to our neighborhood, I didn’t even know where the local elementary school was. I knew that it was reportedly “good,” that’s why we moved here, after all. The more-experienced neighbor across the street mentioned that the school that Natalie, then two, would go to was only about a mile that way. Huh.

You have to seek it out. Truly a neighborhood school, Southwood Glen, is nestled in a neighborhood of ranch homes. It’s not on a busy street. The kids use its back berm for sledding in the winter, and its parking lot serves as a shortcut for cutting between chunks of the neighborhood. The first time I pulled up for Kindergarten orientation, I noticed the smiling sunshine above the front doors. It was charming in a way that my century-old Catholic elementary school had not been. It wasn’t meant to inspire or impress, but to welcome. Check.

I don’t remember the other parents in that first meeting, huddled on the too-tiny chairs as we clutched our sheaves of paper. I was too nervous. If I could go back in time, I’d recognize faces that have since become fixtures in my life, friends and the kinds of neighbors who have truly been through it all with you. It is, after all, a neighborhood school, so you tend to run into the same people. Some of the parents were veterans, but there was a fair crop of oldest children among my own oldest’s classmates. I’m sure that there were other parents there feeling the same feeling of being an interloper in an alien world.

Now, ten years later, my younger daughter is about to finish her final year at this place, with its red bricks and the garden that we planted with cuttings shared from families’ yards and gardens. It’s as familiar to me as almost any place. I have my favorite routes to and from, my favorite parking spot. I know where the second copier is, and where I can snag a cart from to carry in heavy items. I’ve decorated probably every bulletin board in the place and eaten countless plates of spaghetti on slightly-too-small lunch tables. It’s a good place, filled with good people. I’m glad my daughters had their Southwood Glen family.

Before I dissolve into an utterly unsalvageable puddle of tears, here’s a few tips and observations I’d like to share to mark the Kim-Bier family’s departure from elementary school.

Fundraisers are different at public schools. At one of my first PTA meetings, I sat in the outer ring, listening to the seasoned parents in the middle discuss an upcoming fundraiser. I leaned to the woman next to me and asked about whether there’d be wine, too, or just beer. She laughed and explained that there was a strict no alcohol rule in public school buildings. This seemed astonishing to my parochial school-reared self. How else were the parents expected to not just attend but survive an event with a gymful of sugared-up kids? After ten years of non-parochial spring carnivals and fall fests, the answer is: barely. Just, barely.

Always pack the change of clothes. My kid is thoroughly toilet trained, you’ll think. But then they’ll get really, really excited about the game that the gym teacher describes. My kid’s not a puker, you’ll think. Let me tell you: they make that orange sawdust stuff to sprinkle on vomit in industrial size containers for a reason.

It has a brand name: Ooops

Kids can lose a single boot. I’ve been the mom who collected the unclaimed lost and found items for the district rummage sale. In addition to leaving behind single pieces of footwear, children somehow went home without their pants and seemingly brand-new coats. And 32 thousand stray gloves.

Enthusiastic singing wanes around fourth grade. I love an elementary choir concert. I cheer embarrassingly loudly for all of them. I love finding the super shy Kindergartener, and then the prima donna, and the boys wearing tiny three piece suits to sing Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. I’m sorry, girls, but your mother will continue to be a mortifyingly loud fan of the youth arts. I’ve also learned the full-throated, devil-may-care singing seems to wane at about the fourth grade.

Nurture is important, but nature usually shines through. I always volunteered to help in the classroom. I’d do whatever I was assigned, but I always loved the tasks that allowed me to interact with the kids. Teacher friends have confirmed my observation that you can correctly sort out what the kids’ personalities will be like well into adolescence by observing a Kindergarten classroom. For example, my youngest was finding lost souls to help out during “build a gingerbread house” day in Kindergarten, and my oldest had already coined her catchphrase: “just because it’s a bad idea doesn’t mean you won’t have fun.” So, yeah. The Kindergarten teacher knows.

Evie showing her Southwood Glen “Lion Pride.”

Elementary teachers are saints. The good ones become friends for life. And the intense bond between student, parent, and teacher is unique to elementary school. I’ll miss it. I already miss all of you teachers, you know who you are.

Make friends with the secretaries and the custodial staff. The secretaries know everything about those kids. There were many times that I’d call with a situation, and Tricia or Stephanie would find the solution. They serve as surrogate nurses, shoulders to cry on, and the true brains of the operation. And the custodial staff? Did I mention the puke sawdust? Plus the multiple extra events set up and torn down, and the true affection and pride they have in those kids. And they can hook you up with any piece of equipment you might need. In medicine, you are wise to make friends with the nurses. In elementary parenting, the same is true of the secretaries and custodians.

Perfect your pickup line technique. I’ve written on this before. It took me awhile to perfect the carpool technique. It’s been worth it. Let’s keep it moving, folks! (But if the car ahead of you isn’t moving, it’s entirely possible that the driver is napping and a light tap-tap on the horn is all that’s needed.)

Naps in said pickup line are a true pleasure. Please see above. I get there early for a reason. Power naps.

Southwood Glen Community Garden & Student Art

The days are long, but the years fly by.

My daughter’s at school right now. She took the neighborhood carpool to school this morning, her last time riding in Miss Vicky’s coveted shotgun seat, reserved for the oldest in the group. Even though it’s not my day, in an hour I’ll go and line up in the pickup line. I’ll be early, like always, in order to try for a nap. I expect that the lump in my throat will prevent me from dozing off, though. Pretend not to notice my tears if you see me, and forgive me if take a little longer getting on our way this one, last time.

Lappin’ With the Lions Day

Asparagus

I picked up some asparagus from the store yesterday. It must have been nice and fresh. When I washed it, it produced that satisfying squeak that is so characteristic to the vegetable (one of only two common vegetables that are a perennial, in fact.) Perhaps you aren’t familiar with that particular sound, or maybe you just never noticed it. But that sound, along with the unique odor of freshly cut asparagus, reliably dredge up all sorts of memories for me.

Typical, 1-pound, paltry grocery store asparagus offering. I only started voluntarily eating asparagus as an adult.

The memories are all about early, optimistic spring days out on County A. The boxelder tree would still be just beginning to bud, and the grape hyacinths foolishly braving the capricious weather. Those April days, Dad was up well before any of the rest of us, to hand-pick the acre of asparagus out back behind the house. The process was repeated in the evening, sometimes with Mom’s help, depending on the ages and temperaments of the kids that year.

That acre of asparagus was their investment in our future. With five kids and a firefighter’s salary, setting aside college savings out of the regular paycheck just wasn’t a reality. So, somewhere, Mom and Dad got the idea of planting asparagus and selling it by word-of-mouth to local gourmands and housewives. Right around the time the robins returned, the white kitchen phone began ringing a few times per day, with people looking to put in their orders. Many bought in bulk of forty to fifty pounds, blanching and freezing massive amounts of the vegetable to get them through the winter months. Others bought smaller amounts, reveling in the fresh produce. It was CSA before that was a thing. They never advertised, and the business operated on an honors system.

Shockingly, I can’t find any photos of the asparagus operation. These bundles more closely approximate what I remember, but they look to be about 2 pounds. The bundles we packaged were twice as large, and held with a single beige rubber band.

Seemingly overnight, stalks ready for picking emerged. Dad walked the rows, cutting each stalk one by one, piling them up in old laundry baskets at the ends of the rows. Once he walked the entire field, he carried the overflowing baskets over to the spigot and hose. He sprayed the dirt off the bottoms through the gaps in the baskets, positioning his thumb just so over the end of the hose. The cold water pooled in well-worn rivulets in the gravel driveway, and the dog of the moment stopped for a drink of the icy cold, metallic well water.

By then, we kids were awake and getting ready for school. Whoever was ready first got to work helping him. I remember this often being me; I was both the oldest and the most obsessed with earliness. Dad set up a little workflow station in the detached garage. This consisted of an old chair holding a spring-loaded scale from who knows where, topped by a hospital-issued plastic washbasin. These were hoarded from any hospital visit, being just the right size to hold the four pounds bundles into which we packaged the asparagus. For anyone who remembers, these plastic hospital kits also included emesis basins and pitchers, also hoarded for future use dispensing water into cups next to our beds (pitcher) and as weird dress-up accessories (emesis basins). We were a thrifty, very bored lot.

Dad loaded the freshly-washed stalks into the yellow tub, adding and subtracting a few to get to four pounds. Then, with that characteristic squeak, he gathered all four pounds in his huge hands, holding the ends out to me. I already prepared a rubber band, bought in bulk from the Farm and Fleet, stretching it out over my hands, cat’s cradle style. The goal was to loop the rubber band front-to-back over the damp ends, trying hard not to splatter the dirty water onto my school clothes, while the asparagus noisily settled into position. I don’t think we talked about much, per usual for Dad, and the asparagus provided most of the noise.

Dad stood the bundles on end in pools of water in one of those indispensable wash basins. If there was time, we’d throw the ball around. The best was when Dad would lean sideways and somehow launch the ball into a pop-up, higher than the barn roof. I still don’t know how he did that. After we went to school, Dad set out orders for people, their names scribbled on the grocery bags into which they would pack their bundles. If he was around when they came by, he’d help them load up. Otherwise, the customers left their cash tucked under the scale on the chair.

They kept track of the asparagus crop in a ledger that lived on top of the microwave, along with Dad’s refereeing calendar and other things that were important enough to be stored on the microwave, a patented Bier father system. My Uncle Jim has a similar setup, except the brains of his operation reside on the counter of the bathroom just off of his mudroom. I’m pretty sure my Grandpa had a similar system.

This captures the general essence of Dad’s organizational empire.

Some years they’d harvest thousands of pounds of asparagus off of that one acre, in the brief, month-long growing season. For most of my growing up, they charged $1 per pound. At the close of asparagus picking, the plants were allowed to “go to seed,” forming ferny plants that reached six feet tall, creating a delightful world in which we kids created all sorts of adventures. For me, that particular pastime ended the year I was walking in the field and accidentally stepped into a Killdeer nest, smashing the brooding eggs. The mother was several yards off, trying to lure me away in the uniquely Kildeer way, by feigning injury in the hope that I, a presumed predator, would go after her and not her nest. When I stepped on her eggs, she took flight, and I raced to the house, certain that I was about to be attacked in a a Hitchcockian way. I was afraid to go near the asparagus field the rest of the summer.

Later on, there was the added problem of the geese. Apparently, geese will eat most vegetation but not asparagus. So the six hellions were brought on to keep the weeds down in the asparagus field. I’m not sure how much they helped, but they crapped everywhere and attacked viciously if you came within ten feet of them. Some other time I’ll tell you about how the goose population inspired my brother’s lifelong fear of birds. They were mean to each other, too, always having one goose who was the whipping boy of the rest of the flock, missing feathers where the others attacked it. When the second-to-last goose died off years later, the loner became remarkably docile and lonely. He waited for Dad outside the back door and followed him around placidly. Dad called him Henry, and Henry was officially relieved of any asparagus duties.

We kids were never allowed to help harvest with the retired serrated steak knives set aside for the purpose. Dad said that if we cut the young stalks incorrectly, it’d screw up their continued regeneration for the rest of the growing season. I’m pretty sure, though, that it was because this was a big, years-long gift for us, and who asks someone to help “buy” their own gift? Nope, the task was reserved for my parents, waking up before sunrise to walk the rows of optimistic growth, secretly squirreling away money for the five kids screaming at each other up in the house.

Looking Back

A year ago today, the World Health Organization officially declared that the Novel Coronavirus officially reached pandemic levels. Although various experts and pundits were already saying this, the official stamp “pandemic” seemed to make it all real.

I vividly remember where I was at the time. I was driving down 27th street, going by the GFS–basically a store that sells massive quantities of food. Fearing the worst, I made a sharp turn into the lot. I quickly stocked up on what seemed like the essentials. They were already out of white rice, so I went for brown, a bunch of dried beans, several industrial size cans of mixed vegetables, and a ten-pound bag of shredded cheese. Because I am from Wisconsin, dire straits call for large amounts of shredded cheese.

I can’t say that it really made all that much of a difference. Although there were shortages on any number of things, cheese (shredded or otherwise) was never one of them. It seems like a long, long time ago that we hunkered down, trying to figure out how to leave the house, refueling the car only once in a month for under $20, and spending more time together as a family doing nothing than we had since the last maternity leave. I didn’t think so at the time, but in retrospect, it really was kind of nice. Sure, there was the overwhelming existential dread, but we played a ton of board games, and now I’ve seen all of the Marvel movies. So there’s that.

It’s so strange to be living through history. All of this momentous activity, and still I’m yelling for people to move their dirty dishes from the sink to the dishwasher. It’s the little things.

Now that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, I can look back at some of those early, knee-jerk reactions and kind of smile. Not laugh, not yet. But a sort of a winsome grimace is within my power. My early hopes for a common-good approach embraced by all kind of fell flat. But I’ve learned to find grace in my frustration, calm amidst the insecurity.

We ended up donating the beans, rice, and vegetables. The girls hate beans, and we prefer white rice and fresh vegetables. But we ate the heck out of that ten pounds of shredded cheddar. What a year it’s been.

Shameless

My friend Rachel died a little over a week ago. She was younger than I am with three kids and a husband. She had metastatic breast cancer, and we knew it would eventually cut her life short. But it still took me by surprise. The last time I saw her, we waved from our cars outside of the dance studio and rolled our eyes as our respective dogs went nuts at each other from inside the vehicles. It was too cold to roll down the windows, so we didn’t talk. Not that it would have been particularly meaningful, but there it is.

Here’s what I want Rachel’s kids to know: Rachel will always remind me to be brave. She had absolutely no shame in her game. She always spoke her mind (for better or worse), and laughed the loudest. When we worked together at the clinic, she would bust out Zumba moves in the work area between patients. I believe there was even some floor work at times. She lived out loud.

Here’s the memory that I want to treasure forever and give to her kids. We were at a dance competition as dance moms, cheering on our daughters. Before they started announcing awards, the organizers turned up the lights and blasted dance music into the hotel ballroom. One of Rachel’s jams came on. I can’t remember the song, and I am pretty sure that nearly anything could be Rachel’s jam. She hopped up and danced to the front of the room where the girls sat, hands in the air, wagging her booty, much to her daughter’s embarrassment and the other moms’ delight. Now, I will occasionally bust a move from my seat, but she took it to the next level, laughing loudly and not giving a hoot who saw her. That’s how I’m always go to remember Rachel. Fearless, shameless, brave.

I’ve needed some of that spirit lately as I dipped my toe into the local political waters, where people aren’t always kind and thoughtful. But whenever I start to falter and worry about what people might say, I summon up that memory of Rachel, raising the roof with the girls, under the glittering chandelier of the hotel ballroom, while I sat in my seat filled envy at her complete disregard for it all.